Retreat

As a professor, I welcomed the holidays as time off. After the busyness of the fall the semester, what I wanted and needed most was a chance to go inward. When people would ask me, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” I’d answer “As little as possible,” and then explain that I used the day as a retreat. I gave the same answer for Christmas. My family long ago stopped buying gifts and switched to supporting each other’s favorite charities. I love visiting them, but not in the winter. That’s not the time to go to Maine. Spring or summer visits are our tradition, not holidays.

My personal tradition of using the major holidays as retreat days carries on in retirement. I’m normally busy, outgoing, and social, not at all the stereotype of the introverted writer, so I still need such days. Aside from walking to the yoga studio to teach a class on Thursday evening (yes, a couple of people chose to come), I didn’t go out. I did my own yoga and meditation practices, and I finished the first draft of a book. Perfect.

The only hard part of this is explaining it to people who think it’s sad or weird, when I’m actually happy not “doing” the holidays. When I do explain, I find quite a few people who like the idea, but others still seem to think it’s a bit pathological. We have Scrooge and the Grinch, after all, among our seasonal archetypes. One Thanksgiving in Virginia, some well-meaning neighbors anonymously left a huge aluminum pan full of turkey and stuffing on my doorstep, not knowing me well enough to realize I’m a vegetarian. I guess they saw that I didn’t go out and felt sorry for me. I never knew which neighbors did it. I wish they had known my day of inwardness wasn’t lonely or depressing, but liberating. Soul-nourishing.

I have friends who do the big family gatherings, and that nourishes their souls. I heard the community pot luck at the brewery was packed, and I imagine it was fun for everyone who went and gave them what they needed from the day, also.

Black Friday passed, and I didn’t shop. However, I hope my friends in T or C who run stores had good sales, and that those who did shop supported small businesses and found meaningful gifts.

My neighbor across the street put up her Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving. Though she intended to make herself wait, she couldn’t resist. She had creative fun, and the display is quite entertaining. (The pink flamingo is wearing a holiday bow.) I don’t own any ornaments and like it that way.

Today, I walked to the river, hoping to see water birds. The cormorants or coots—I still don’t know for sure what they are—have returned, and they were making their odd noises, peeping and croaking as they fished. On the opposite bank, where I’ve never seen any humans before, a man in a plaid shirt and denim shorts sat in a small, sunny clearing, perfectly still. Fishing or contemplating? I couldn’t tell. The sky was New Mexico Blue over Turtleback Mountain, and a blue heron perched on a for sale sign on a piece of land I hope no one ever buys, even though one of my yoga students is the realtor. The man on the bank moved just enough that I could see his fishing line catch the light as a fish stirred his meditation into new awareness, the present moment tugging on his hook.

His attire on a fifty-five degree day made me suspect he was a snowbird, one of the Mainers and Canadians who escape to T or C and think even our cool days are warm. If so, he has escaped to a town without a mall. What better place to spend the season? It was good bird day. Heron, cormorants (or coots), and snowbird.

 

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Pilot Car

My inner voice told me to drop in on a friend who’d been sick recently. Her shop being open was a good sign, so I went in. While we were chatting at her desk near the front door, a man walked in, making a beeline across the store.

“That’s a man on a mission,” I said. “He knows what he wants.” My friend agreed. A minute or so later, he brought my nonfiction book, Small Awakenings, to the desk, and asked my friend, “Do you know when she’s bringing out the seventh book in the series?” He’d probably come in for another Mae Martin mystery and settled for essays on mindfulness instead.

I was in my running gear, including purple five-finger shoes that clashed with my red pants and my Mescalero T-shirt featuring the Ga’an dancers in bright yellow. I don’t dress to impress the lizards. I’d rather look better for a reader, but he met the real me. I explained that the first draft of book eight was written. It was supposed to be book seven, but my critique partner had so many questions about what happened in between its events and the end of Death Omen, I needed to write the story that covered everything I’d planned to skip. If you’re asking the same question he was: Sorry it took so long. Yes, it’s been a year since Death Omen came out, but that’s why the delay.

He shared his relationship with the series and the characters. Like a lot of my male readers, he’s attached to Mae and has doubts about Jamie, and hopes she may move on in a new direction. Many female readers, on the other hand, love Jamie. They like him better than Mae, in fact. He’s sincere and caring, but troubled. Kind of annoying. A mess with a good heart. The gentleman in the shop acknowledged that Jamie had made progress, but he relapses.

I told him Mae has to decide about her love life, not me. I’m working on the next-to-last chapter of book seven, and she doesn’t know her choice yet, so neither do I. Though I wrap up the mystery plot in each book, the protagonist’s personal life is an ongoing arc. The friend I based her on is a strong woman, both athletically and emotionally, and yet she makes unwise romantic decisions. It’s her blind spot, her weakness.

On my way to Elephant Butte to run in the state park, I was stopped by road work and had to wait for the pilot car. As I finally drove up the hill behind it, gazing at its sign, I sensed it was a sign. Pilot Car Follow Me.

My inner pilot car drove to the shop and put me where I’d meet the next guidance. Talking with my reader made me see how the final chapter will work out in a way that’s true to the characters and their development over time. It will flow perfectly into book eight. And it just might satisfy readers on both sides of the Jamie divide. I’m honored that they care so much about my characters.

Outdoor Yoga and Bushy Neurons

I’m still exploring Hare Brain Tortoise Mind at a tortoise pace, and I came across this concept in it: Animals that live in highly stimulating environments grow bushier neurons in their brains. That is, the neurons develop more dendrites, make more connections with their neighbors, and become capable of new and varied patterns of interaction. They can get out of a rut.

I think of T or C as a bushy neuron kind of place. A friend who visited from Virginia tried to explain what she found so remarkable about it. She said I’d described it well in my books, and yet those descriptions hadn’t captured a certain aspect of its vibe, something she struggled name or explain. Then she finally realized what it was. “There’s no pattern.”

While she was here, she mentioned how odd it was to look down an alley and see not only a dirt alley with dumpsters, but also an explosion of murals—not graffiti, but murals. The town kept surprising her. And it can still surprise me.

She’s right; there’s no pattern, unless the two blue-and-purple houses on my block constitute a pattern. But one has a moon goddess on it and the other has a Kokopelli. On the same block are trailers and the stucco-and-stick-fence gated wall of a spa that will never be built. For some reason, someone bought the lot quite a few years back and began construction, although you can’t build anything that size in this location. It’s a nice wall, though.

Doing some volunteer work that takes me all over town, I recently discovered a section of Juniper Street I never knew existed. The street has three disconnected parts, and I’d only known about two of them. This third part is around a hidden curve. From there it suddenly drops down, becoming so steep no one could ever ride bike up it and so narrow you’d hate to meet another car on it. On one side is a great wall of wind-and-water-sculpted red dirt and on the other side, two residential streets, one with little houses, and below that, one with super-bright crayon-colored trailers. When I’ve looked down at the town from the water tower hill, I couldn’t figure out where the street with those trailers was and how one got to it. That third leg of Juniper was hidden by the wall of dirt.

In other neighborhoods, I’ve food an orange-and-blue building, stone buildings, a yellow house with Lady of Guadeloupe murals, little hidden cottages behind other houses, magical gardens, art gardens, hoarder yards, collapsing houses, yards with so much trash in them I worried how people could live that way, serene little adobe apartments with winding paths and desert gardens, and many of these coexist on the same streets. No pattern. The appeal of T or C to artists and musicians makes sense. It’s not neat, cute, or pretty, but it makes your neurons bushy.

The recent exposure to so many new off-beat places seems to have broken my habitual perceptual patterns. I discovered a perfect spot for outdoor yoga in the courtyard outside my apartment that I never noticed as such, though the small square of bricks was always there. Smooth and flat, partly shaded, it faces the autumn-yellow fig tree and a tall purple aster. Yoga feels more spiritual under the open sky with nature around me, even if it’s nature in the courtyard. And the shapes of the fig tree and the flowers reminded me what the novelty was doing for my neurons.

*****

Read more of Amber Foxx’s essays on this blog and in the collection Small Awakenings: Reflections on Mindful Living.